Which Type of Online Course Business Are You? (And Why It Matters)

By Jeff Cobb.  Last Updated on August 31, 2023

Getting into the online course business is all the rage these days. You can find any number of newly-minted “experts” with advice on how to sell courses online and the market for platforms to help you create and sell online courses is booming.

It’s precisely because there is so much going on out there that it is important to step back and be clear about which type of online course business you represent. Doing this before starting to make critical business decisions will make your life easier in many areas, but we are going to focus on one area in particular for this post: choosing an online course platform.

You see, choosing the right platform to sell online courses is highly dependent on identifying platforms that were actually designed to work well for the type of online course business you represent. That sounds easy enough, but it gets mucked up all the time out there on the Web.

We continually see lists and reviews that lump together platforms that were designed with very different businesses and audiences in mind. This is confusing for prospective platform customers and apparently it is even confusing for Google, which – for all its supposed smarts – doesn’t seem to know how to keep these types of misleading lists and reviews out of its top rankings.

So what are some major types of online course businesses? Currently, we put them into five categories:

  • Solo or Small Business Edupreneur
  • Traditional training firm going/expanding online
  • Trade or Professional Association
  • Continuing Education Department
  • Corporate Extended Enterprise

These aren’t meant to be exact or exhaustive, but hopefully as we provide a little more information on each, you’ll understand why it is important to distinguish among them. Keep in mind that when we say “online course business,” we are talking mainly about businesses that market and sell online learning to adult learners. So, we’re not focused corporate training departments and we’re also not focused on most traditional academic programming.

Now, here’s a bit more detail on each category.

Solo or Small Business Edupreneurs

In this category you typically find people with expertise in a particular topic or skill. Often they are consultants, authors, speakers, or people with a particular set of technical skills that others value. Programmers and musicians, for example, fall in this last group. By going online, they are usually aiming to diversify their revenue streams and monetize their expertise in a more scalable way.

If you are in this group, there is a decent chance that you have not really thought of yourself as an educator before, or if you have, you have not thought of yourself as an entrepreneur (and the idea of marketing and selling may seem scary and/or distasteful). Still, you see the potential in marrying education and entrepreneurship to become an “edupreneur” and you are looking for the best way to do that.

Some common traits of businesses in this category include:

  • A desire to build their courses easily in the platform – usually with a heavy emphasis on video – rather than in an external authoring tool
  • An emphasis on self-paced, one demand course – the ability to add social learning elements or to deliver facilitated online courses is a “nice to have” that often goes unused
  • Reliance on e-commerce built into the online course platform – as opposed to integrating with an external e-commerce platform
  • Strong need for solid built-in marketing tools in the platform and/or pre-built integrations with external tools (e.g., e-mail marketing platform) that are as plug-and-play as possible
  • Fewer reporting requirements than the other categories of online course businesses – because of this and the first bullet, they are much less likely to care about e-learning standards like SCORM or the xAPI.

Now, the above bullets are not universally true, of course, but online course businesses in this category do generally tend to fit best with the types of platforms covered in the first three areas of 15 Platforms to Publish and Sell Online Courses (and Counting)

Screenshot of Thinkific Site for Thinkific Review
Thinkific is a current top pick for the solo and small business edupreneur category. Read an in-depth Thinkific review here.

Traditional Training Firm

This category covers people who are already in the training and education business and are looking either to move online or to expand what they are doing online. They are often going to be familiar, to at least some extent, with the corporate learning management system (LMS) market and, as a result, will typically have higher expectations for what an online course platform should be capable of doing – particularly when it comes to managing learners and tracking/reporting.

Some common traits of businesses in this category include:

  • An established (or planned) practice of building course using a standalone authoring package (see examples of these here). This approach make the course much more portable – an important factor because training firms will often have larger catalogs than sole edupreneurs and small businesses and they often want to sell their course for installation on a customer’s LMS.
  • Much greater needs for creating and managing groups of learners. Very often these businesses are selling to other businesses (B2B) rather than to individual learners (B2C) and they need to be able to create virtual walls between these businesses and give authorized managers at the businesses the ability to manage their own users. This may include being able to give their business customers a full functioning and brandable instance of the platform – a capability that is typically know as multi-tenancy.
  • Much more of a need for tracking of learner activity (i.e., time in course, course completing, scores) and reporting in detail on these activities. This groups business customers will typically demand detailed reporting, in many cases for compliance purposes. As a result of this need and the first bullet above, this group tends to care much more about e-learning standards like SCORM and xAPI.
  • More of an emphasis on formats other than on-demand e-learning. In particular, the ability to manage face-to-face training like seminars may be important to businesses in this category

Again, none of the above is universally true, but in general, online course businesses in this group are likely to fit best with the types of online course platforms covered in The Best Learning Management Systems for Small Businesses to Sell Online Courses.

TalentLMS is a top picks in the Traditional Training Firm category

Trade and Professional Associations

This is a category that we have spent more than a decade in as consultant. Prior to that, we founded a company that created the first learning management system designed specifically for associations. So, we know this category well.

The problem these days is that many of the traditional learning management system providers as well as some of the start-up forms in the solo/small edupreneur space don’t know it well, but nonetheless see it as a great area for expansion. As a result, there is a lot of noise and confusion in this market.

At a high level, trade associations – whose members are primarily businesses, rather than individuals – often share many of the same needs at the Traditional Training Firm group above, while individual member associations – and particularly the small ones (which is most of them) are often closer to the Solo or Small Business Edupreneurs category. Even with these commonalities, though, there are needs that most associations have that the above two groups don’t typically have to the same degree, if at all. These include:

  • Issuance and tracking of continuing education credit – and, along with this, a strong emphasis on providing a detailed, useful learner transcript that include the ability to download any certificates earned by the learner
  • A lot of emphasis on Webinars as a content source. While all types of online course business use this format, it has been the bread and butter of association online education and very often the reason an online course platform is put in place is to manage sales of recorded Webinars (and more seamless, integrated access to the live ones)
  • Very strong capabilities for managing groups and roles in the system. This included, at a minimum, being able to distinguish between members and non-members for pricing as well as for access to restricted content. For trades associations, it will also very often include the multi-tenancy capabilities discussed above for training firms – but often with much more detailed requirements
  • Integration with applications specific to or widely used in this market. The two big ones are association management systems (AMSes) and online community platforms like Higher Logic. While most online course platform providers have application programming interfaces (APIs) for integrating with external systems, integrating with these specific systems in a meaningful way is usually not trivial

Associations really aren’t my focus at Learning Revolution, but fortunately organizations in this category can access a wealth of resources for selecting an appropriate platform by visiting the Association Learning Management System (LMS) Resources page that my company, Tagoras, hosts through its ReviewMyLMS site.

Academic Continuing Education Divisions

Online education has become big business in higher education and one of the places it is having a major impact is in the departments and divisions of continuing education at many schools. In some cases, these divisions have become real “cash cows” by, for example, offering online certificate programs that align with employer needs.

The platform options for this type of business will vary greatly depending on how independently it operates from the main institution. In some cases, if the divisions operates like an independent business, a platforms from the previous categories – particularly Trade and Professional Associations – may be a fit.

If, however, the continuing education division is expected to make use of the platform used by the core institution, then it will likely find itself delivering online education through Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard, Brightspace, or one of the other systems that are common in academic. If this is the case, the it may be possible (or even required) to make use of the main institutions registration interface (which is typically separate from the online course delivery platform) or, alternatively, an option like Course Merchant or LMS Checkout could be use to add e-commerce capabilities onto the platform.

Corporate Extended Enterprise

Finally, many corporations have seen an opportunity to deliver education and training to their suppliers, channel partners, and/or customers. In some cases, they do this on a complimentary basis as part of strategy to improve their operations or as a content marketing initiative. In other cases, they see it as a way to generate revenue through selling educational products – much like the other categories above.

As with continuing education divisions, the options here will vary greatly depending on how independently these extended enterprise activities operate from traditional learning and development. If the degree of independence is high, then the people in charge of extended enterprise initiatives will want to consider which of the above categories they align with most closely and look at the platform options that align with that category. The options under the Traditional Training Firm category, in particular, may be a fit.

If, on the other hand, your enterprise training initiatives have to be run on the same platform as your internal L&D, you are going to have to figure out the configurations and customizations that make it possible for you to enroll and manage external learners and provide them with an appropriate learning experience (which may be quite different from how internal training and development is provided). Most traditional corporate LMSes are not all that well suited for handling extended enterprise, so if you are lucky, you will either have in place a system that is or have an L&D department that is on board with implementing a new system. Some of the main ones to consider in this category include:

So, Know Your Type of Online Course Business

Hopefully it is clear at this point that there can be major differences in which companies and platforms to consider depending on which type of online course business you represent. You don’t want to mix apples and oranges or you will end up with a very confused platform selection process and, most likely, a poor final decision. We don’t need to tell you the headaches that may cause you down the road as you discover the company you are working with does not really understand (or, often, want to understand) your business model and the platform does not really meet your needs.

By taking just a few minutes to be clear about you online course business type, though, and then identifying the platforms that truly fit that type, you will be on your way with a successful platform selection process.

P.S. – If you are looking for expert guidance in selecting a platform, check out the free guide How to Select the Right Online Course Platform.

Head shot of Learning Revolution Founder Jeff Cobb

Jeff Cobb, Founder of Learning Revolution

Jeff Cobb is an expert in online education and the business of adult lifelong learning. Over the past 20+ years he has built a thriving career based on that expertise – as an entrepreneur, a consultant, an author, and a speaker. Learning Revolution is a place where Jeff curates tips, insights, and resources to help you build a thriving expertise-based business. Learn more about Jeff Cobb here.

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